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Unsure future for illegal immigrant plan in Mass.

By Steve Leblanc
Associated Press Writer / May 28, 2010

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BOSTON—A measure intended to crack down on illegal immigrants faces an uncertain future on Beacon Hill after being approved by the Massachusetts Senate.

The plan passed Thursday on a 28-10 vote as an amendment to the Senate version of the state budget. It now must survive closed-door budget negotiations between a six-member House and Senate committee charged with drafting a final version of the budget.

The House narrowly rejected a similar amendment during its budget debate.

The measure also faces a skeptical Gov. Deval Patrick, who has publicly embraced policies that the Senate plan would prohibit, including allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay the same in-state tuition rates at public colleges that legal residents pay.

Patrick has not said he would veto the measure -- a potentially risky political move as he seeks re-election to a second term.

"We will continue to work with the House and the Senate to ensure that any new efforts are not duplicative, too costly and overly burdensome," said Patrick's press secretary, Juan Martinez.

Approval of the amendment drew fire from immigrants rights groups that planned a Saturday afternoon rally on the Boston Common to protest the plan.

The proposal also drew a lukewarm response from Democratic leaders at the Statehouse.

Senate President Therese Murray, who didn't vote on the amendment, called parts of the plan "unfortunate," but allowed it to come up for debate.

"I don't necessarily agree with everything that's in it, but it was the will of the body to move it, so I moved it," Murray, D-Plymouth, said after the vote.

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the question now is in the hands of the budget conference committee, but didn't say whether the Winthrop Democrat backs the measure.

The wide-ranging amendment would curtail illegal immigrants' access to a range of state services from Medicaid to public housing.

It also requires companies doing business with the state to verify their workers are in the country legally and establishes a toll-free phone number to allow residents to report to the state Attorney General's office suspected illegal immigrant workers.

Supporters could not say how much the bill would cost.

The Senate's action followed a poll released late Wednesday that found eight out of 10 Massachusetts voters say proof of citizenship should be required for public benefits.

Patrick's two major contenders for the governor's office seized on the issue.

Republican Charles Baker called the measure a "strong step forward today in ensuring that taxpayer money is spent on legal residents seeking state services."

"I urge Deval Patrick to support this bipartisan measure and recognize the severity of continuing the status quo," Baker said.

Independent state Treasurer Tim Cahill called the measure "a good first step."

"The governor has not signaled that he would sign it. It is going to be important to hold his feet to the fire," Cahill said.

Patrick has a mixed record on illegal immigration.

He supports in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants and during the 2006 campaign said he would sign legislation to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. He later backed off that position.

As governor, however, Patrick signed an executive order in 2007 calling for fines and contract termination for state contractors who hire illegal immigrants.

The focus on the immigration issue has overshadowed the state's ongoing fiscal crunch that could worsen as federal stimulus dollar dry up and voters weigh a ballot question that would cut the Massachusetts sales tax rate by more than half, eliminating $2 billion in annual revenues.

The $28.4 billion budget for the 2011 fiscal year passed early Friday by the Senate is similar to the House budget.

Like the House plan, the Senate budget includes no new taxes, leaves untouched the state's rainy day fund and reduces state aid to cities and towns by $159 million, although every community will continue to receive enough education aid to meet the requirements of the state's 1993 Education Reform law requiring all school districts have an adequate amount of money.

The Senate also voted 25-12 to eliminate the Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day holidays, celebrated only in Suffolk County. Some say the holidays are unfair to other state workers and private sector workers who don't get a day off.

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